SYDNEY : If there were concerns about blowouts when the Women’s World Cup expanded to 32 teams this year, minnows Haiti, Jamaica and Ireland have served notice they deserve to be on the game’s biggest stage.
Germany, Brazil and Japan might have racked up the goals in their opening matches but other title contenders have faced much stiffer competition from lowly-ranked opponents than they might have expected.
“We belong. We think we can compete at this level,” Philippines coach Alen Stajcic said after his 46th-ranked team lost 2-0 to Switzerland, and had a goal disallowed for offside.
“We’ve arrived at the point where we’ve improved significantly enough to where we can go on the pitch and believe that we can win.”
At the 2019 World Cup in France, the United States thoroughly demolished Thailand 13-0. Their merciless goal celebrations left a sour taste as poor sportsmanship with some, and the shocking scoreline raised questions about parity.
Four years later, the most lopsided score after the first round of matches was Germany’s 6-0 win over Morocco on Monday. Vietnam drew the short straw as the first opponents for the Americans but were far from humiliated by a 3-0 loss.
Despite eight teams making their World Cup debut this year, the storyline in Australia and New Zealand has been far more about the pleasant surprises.
Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz, outscored 12-1 in 2019, held fifth-ranked France to a hardfought 0-0 draw in Sydney.
European champions England edged debutants Haiti 1-0, but needed a spectacular late save from keeper Mary Earps to secure all three points. Debutants Ireland dropped a 1-0 decision to Australia before a record crowd of 75,784 in Sydney.
“There are good players coming through the ranks now and I think once upon a time the U.S. was very, very dominant. And you can see the gap is closing,” said Jamaica coach Lorne Donaldson.
“I think the smaller nations are jumping on that bandwagon and saying ‘we can do this too’.”
New Zealand set the tone in the tournament opener, finally winning a game after 15 World Cup losses with a 1-0 upset of former champions Norway. At the 2007 World Cup, the bottom three teams – New Zealand, Argentina and Ghana – were outscored 42-4.
“The gaps are closing,” said Chantelle Swaby, who plays with sibling Allyson in the Jamaica team.
“As the final whistle went, I heard my sister say, ‘The world rankings? What rankings?'”
The new parity comes despite a cavernous gap in preparedness between teams at the top and bottom of the rankings.
A study by players union FIFPRO found that Haiti played less than a third of the number games that the U.S. did in their World Cup preparations, and less than half as many as England.
“Going into this World Cup the game has just grown and a lot of federations have grown as well,” said U.S. defender Naomi Girma.
“(Closer scores are) to be expected and I think it’s great to see so many countries coming in and making a great impression on the world stage.”
FIFPRO also found that nearly a third of World Cup players were not paid for qualification games, and two-thirds of 362 players surveyed had to take leave from another form of employment to participate in qualifying.
Only 40 per cent identified themselves as a professional footballer, although all will receive $30,000 direct from FIFA for playing in the World Cup.
FIFA also launched a pilot programme in 2021 to aid team preparation with 10 participating countries. Vietnam, for example, was provided with a fitness and nutrition expert.
New Zealand’s Czech coach Jitka Klimkova said there was quality throughout the tournament.
“We know we are not going to have any easy game in the World Cup,” she said.
“Every opposition that we are facing against, they have a reason to be here. They made the World Cup.”